Longoria at top of game after banner 2016

Longoria at top of game after banner 2016

With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Rays squad each day this week. Today's topic: How's Your Star?

ST. PETERSBURG -- Evan Longoria is just fine.

The Tampa Bay third baseman, longest-tenured player and resident star, is coming off one of his best seasons. That's a huge positive as the Rays head into the 2017 season.

Longoria turned in one of the best offensive seasons in Rays history in 2016, establishing career-highs of 173 hits, 36 home runs, 81 extra-base hits, and 330 total bases.

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Though he'd never totally experienced a season that made the experts question his abilities, he clearly took a step back toward being one of baseball's elite in 2016. In doing so, Longoria put to rest any talk about having his best days behind him.

Mostly, Longoria seemed to get comfortable in his skin, understanding more about his swing than ever before. He also made some early mechanical changes to his swing and held true to those changes.

Longoria turns in fine 2016

Longoria's numbers had taken a dive in recent years relative to earlier in his career. Among his 2016 accomplishments was the ability to put together "a good plan of attack day-to-day with pitchers."

"I think mentally, I kind of set those intentions at the beginning of the year," Longoria said last season. "Whatever happened in the past offensively wasn't going to happen this year. And if I started to struggle that I wasn't going to let those thoughts creep in and those negative thoughts impact me the next day. And it's really helped me this year."

In addition to what Longoria does on the field, he is the unquestioned leader of the team, and he leads by example. Manager Kevin Cash expanded on Longoria's leadership.

"We won the last game of the year because Evan Longoria busted it down the line on a strike-three miss or passed ball by a catcher. When your best player, or one of your best players, was playing like that, there's not too much you need to do as a coach or manager because he's setting that tone."

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Cash also allowed that Longoria often plays when he's dinged up. He played in 160 games in 2016 -- all starts, marking the fourth consecutive season in which he's played in at least 160 games. From 2013-2016, he has played in a Major League-leading 642 games.

The Rays are just better when Longoria is in the lineup. Based on the lineup the Rays should have around him in 2017, there's no reason to expect anything less than what he produced in 2016. If Longoria's able to perform anywhere near this past season, the chances of the Rays improving in the win column will be greatly enhanced.

Bill Chastain has covered the Rays for MLB.com since 2005. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.